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How The Irish Saved Wellington at Waterloo

"Closing the Gates at Hougoumont, 1815," Robert Gibb, 1903

For almost a millennium, the Irish have provided men and military expertise to the English and British crowns. From the hobelar light cavalry in the 13th century to the First World War and beyond, soldiers from Ireland have made outsized contributions. The Battle of Waterloo, June 18,1815, stands as a shining example of Ireland’s place in Britain’s military history.

Taking the King’s Shilling

The Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, which had raged continuously from 1781 to 1815, would have a profound influence on the course of Irish history, fomenting bitter divisions and engendering the opposing ideologies of Republicanism and Unionism.

The economic booms and busts produced by the decades-long war with France left Ireland’s economy in a perilous state. That, coupled with the aftermath of the disastrous 1798 Rebellion, left many families destitute. For some, the only realistic option for survival lay in the enlistment of a son or a father (or both) into the British army.

Captured rebels were left with even starker choices: the hangman’s noose, transportation, or conscription into the King’s forces. Consequently, by the late 18th century one third of the British army consisted of Irish-born soldiers.

Of course, not all sons of Ireland fought for the British. The French and even German states fielded their own share of first and second-generation Irish regiments, although as many as 40 per cent of these foreign fighters ended up in red coats.

Unlike Britain, which was undergoing an industrial revolution at the turn of the 19th century, Ireland was suffering from massive unemployment. The destitute were disproportionately from the Catholic majority — victims of discrimination legalized by the harsh anti-Catholic penal laws.

Despite this, the British army at Waterloo fielded three predominantly Irish, Gaelic-speaking and predominantly Catholic regiments: The 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot, the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons and the 18th Kings Irish Hussars.

Following his escape from Elba and his hundred-day return to power in 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte had massed an army of 73,000 battle-hardened troops, experienced veterans who were fiercely loyal to their Emperor. Facing him was an Anglo-allied army of 68,000 led by the Irish-born aristocrat Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington. Wellington led an assembly of troops from Dutch and German states along with 25,000 British regulars. A Prussian army of 50,000, led by the old warhorse Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, would eventually join the battle at Waterloo and decisively turn the tide for Wellington. Notably, Of the 25,000 British troops at Waterloo, only 7,000 had any real battle experience; most of those were infantry, and the majority were Irish.

“The Bravest Man at Waterloo”

The Battle began just after 11 a.m. with the French attacking Wellington’s right flank at Hougoumont Farm. Capturing this strategic, high-walled compound would enable Napoleon to outmaneuver Wellington. Recognizing its importance, the British commander reinforced the position with troops from the Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards. Their heroic defense of the impromptu citadel was dramatically depicted on canvas in Robert Gibb’s painting Closing The Gates at Hougoumont. The picture captures the crucial moment when opportunistic French soldiers force open the gates of the compound but are savagely repulsed by British soldiers.

“The success of the battle turned upon the closing of the gates at Hougoumont,” Wellington would write. And not surprisingly, an Irish soldier played a key role in the storied moment. Corporal James Graham of County Monaghan was most instrumental in this action, having slid the cross beam into place securing the gate once it was pushed shut. Some years later Graham received a substantial reward for his contribution: a nomination for being the “the Bravest man at Waterloo” by Wellington in recognition of his courage, and for saving the life of the Garrison Commander, Lieutenant Colonel James MacDonnell of Glengarry.

“The Regiment that Saved the Center”

The 27th (Inniskilling) Regiment of Foot had occupied a key strategic position on the forward slope of a ridge in the center of Wellington’s line. For two seemingly eternal hours, the 27th, consisting of 747 infantrymen, endured continual sniping from French sharpshooters and pounding from enemy artillery. Despite this, the line still held.

As the battle progressed, the regiment formed squares to repulse the onslaught of the French cavalry. Comrades, brothers, cousins fell. But with extraordinary courage and amazing resolve, the 27th still held.

By this most remarkable display of self-sacrifice the 27th had given Wellington a most precious gift: time. Without it, the Anglo-allied line might have collapsed before the decisive arrival of Blücher’s Prussians.

“They Don’t Know When They are Beaten”

The 27th held out, blocking the road to Brussels and a likely French victory. The Inniskillings had suffered more than 50 percent casualties. Only two other regiments that day, both Scottish, would take such appalling losses.

“That regiment with the castles on their caps is composed of the most obstinate mules I ever saw,” Napoleon famously remarked about the Inniskillings. “They don’t know when they are beaten.”

But of course, help for the 27th, and the entire Anglo-allied army at Waterloo, was on the way.

On the afternoon of the June 18, Blücher was marching towards the fighting at Waterloo seeking bloody revenge for defeat at Ligny two days earlier. The Prussians’ arrival would tip the balance.

Despite Wellington infamously declaring that his redcoats were “the scum of the earth,” he would graciously concede in 1829, when the Catholic Emancipation Bill was put before the House of Lords, that “It was mainly due to the Irish Catholic that we (the British) owe our pre-eminence in our military career.” Wellington’s support for Catholic emancipation would even lead to his participation in an 1829 duel with the rabidly anti-Catholic Earl of Winchelsea.

On November 23, 1918 Irish soldiers would take to the field at Waterloo yet again.

After more than four years of unimaginable horror in the trenches of the Western front the 2nd Leinsters were the first British army regiment to march across the battlefield of Waterloo since 1815.

Leading the outfit were the pipers. My grandfather Peter Farrell of Newstone Drumconrath, County Meath was, I’m proud to say, one of them.